Brendan Foreman wrote this review for Folk Tales.
It may be a little hard to believe, but, were it not for the work of Bartok and those of his generation, the current folk music industry would probably be a completely different sort of beast. In fact, it might not even exist.
Allow me a slight digression to explain my position. Before Bartok — who began recording the peasant music of Hungary in the 1910s, almost as soon as the technology, i. e., portable phonographs, was available — and others of his generation, traditional music of Europe and America was a neglected field. Considered by many musicians, conductors, and scholars to be not much more than a pathetic byproduct of the then current class structure of most of European society. Watered-down versions of folk music made their way into the music of composers such as Franz Liszt, who wanted to make nationalistic statements of some sort, but for the most part few beyond the “folk” themselves were paying much heed to their art forms.
That is, no one until the turn of the twentieth century and the advent of portable recording equipment (actually, the advent of recording equipment at all, come to think of it). For some reason, many in the generation that grew up with the first recording equipment seemed also to grow up with a fascination with the traditional elements of their homelands, and the first three decades of the twentieth century saw a number of scholars across the world — from Bartok in Hungary to John Lomax in the United States — scouring their respective countrysides for source material. Also, throughout the universities, which were producing like rabbits at the time, more and more scholars developed an interest in the study of these recordings and what they said about the people who both produced and listened to such music.
All this activity produced not only a wealth of documented traditional music but, more importantly, a newfound and world-wide respect for the music and the cultures that produced it. This new appreciation had far-reaching effects on the generations ahead, since it not only paved the way for future field recorders such as Alan Lomax and Ralph Rinzler, but it also inspired Harry Smith to view the recorded popular American music of the 1920s and 1930s as a form of American folk music while providing financial incentive (albeit small ones) for such recording companies as Folkways, Vanguard, and Rounder to begin distributing the music commercially.
The current state of folk and traditional music is the product of the massive folk boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Any “folkie” out there now has some antecedent from then, from the singer-songwriters to the neo-traditionalists.
Now, back to the books at hand. Yugoslav Folk Music is a massive body of work that unfortunately proved to be the last item of ethnomusicology that Bartok would work on. All during the 1910s to 1930s, he had been busily conducting field recordings throughout much of Hungary and other areas of Eastern Europe (especially where there were any substantial Hungarian settlements). Rigorously comparing the various melodies, tune structures, rhythms, and harmonic systems, he had by the mid 1930s come up with a working model of the origins and development of much of Eastern European music. However, by the time he got to considering how the multi-multi-ethnic country, now known as “Yugoslavia” — freshly carved from the skeleton of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire — fit in with the rest of Eastern Europe’s traditional musical cultures, the political situation would not let him enter or leave Yugoslavia with any sort of recording equipment; he could not do any field recordings whatsoever there. In fact, the political situation in all of Central Europe was compelling him to relocate away from Hungary altogether, for the Nazification of Europe had just begun.
A happy bit of providence chimed in when Bartok was informed that a certain Milman Parry from the United States had successfully recorded thousands of songs and tunes in Yugoslavia during the early ’30s, in a search for the origins of the works of Homer. But Parry had died before he had a chance to start analyzing his recordings, which contained a substantial amount of heroic epic folk songs, and Harvard, which now had possession of the recordings, was interested in getting Bartok to aid in the work.
At the same time, Columbia University was trying to find a professorial position for Bartok in their music department. Thus, the Bartoks — Bela and his wife, Ditta Pasztory-Bartok — arrived at New York in late October of 1940 for a lecture and recital tour which ended in March of the following year, when he began work on the Parry recordings.
Although the actual work and first draft of his work on the Parry collection only took about a year to complete, the editing process took far longer, and unfortunately Bartok died in 1945 — six years before the final version was finally published. The current edition has been re-edited by Benjamin Suchoff at SUNY for the New York Bartok Archive. Additional material — as will be explained — has been added.
This edition comes in three volumes. As much as I can figure out, it seems that the first few editions of Yugoslav Folk Music only included most of the first volume. Subtitled “Serbo-Croatian Folk Songs and Instrumental Pieces from the Milman Parry Collection” and co-written by Bartok and Albert B. Lord, this volume will be of most interest to the lay reader or casually interested musician. Included is a preface by Suchoff detailing the history of the Parry Collection and Bartok’s work on it, as well as a very brief foreword by George Herzog.
The meat of the first volume consists of two parts written by Bartok and Lord, respectively. The first details Bartok’s theories about Serbo-Croatian folk music as given by the Parry Collection. His beginning essay is erudite and quite difficult for the lay reader (such as myself) to understand. However, this is followed by a set of beautifully typeset music, which was used as examples in the previous essay. A total of 54 pieces are laid out from Bartok’s transcriptions of the Parry Collection. Even a cursory glance at them will let the reader know both the complexity of Yugoslavian folk music and the genius of Bartok’s transcripting abilities. The second part of the first volume consists of Albert Lord’s translations of the lyrics for the previous 54 songs. He provides an interesting essay detailing the significance of these pieces and how they fit within the general make-up of Eastern European music in terms of theme and variation. The appendices consist of additional material that was not provided in the first edition, including several of Bartok’s handwritten transcriptions.
The next volume, subtitled “Tabulation of Material,” is for the hardcore ethnomusicographer only. In this tome, Bartok outlines the results of his comparative study of the various tunes that he transcribed from the collection. He does this by detailing the characteristics of each tune on a massive table — several tables, actually, describing the meters, harmonies, and divisions of each piece. However, regardless of the genius and hard work involved with the making of it, this portion of the collection is complicated and only interesting to a scholar of the field — professional or amateur.
The last two volumes consist of Bartok’s own handwritten transcriptions from the Parry Collection. This material was not in the original edition, since his later editing work on this set involved mostly getting the typesetting right. And it is a little unclear whether Bartok actually wanted these publicized. However, anyone interested in material beyond that provided in the first volume will have plenty to work with in these last two books. Most of the songs are very short; he seems only to have written the first few bars of each piece, getting the gist of each song down, then moving to the next. It’s nevertheless a fascinating glimpse into Bartok’s thinking process and a testament to his skill as a transcriber.
Ethnomusicology — like many of the humanities — has changed a lot since the early 1940s. There is more emphasis on the content and context of the lyrics than on the morphology of the tunes themselves. Nevertheless, this is an invaluable aid to the scholar of East European music. And it is also interesting to anyone just interested in the field. Be warned, though, it’s a tough read but well worth it.
(State University of New York Press, 1978)